More small processors needed to fulfill promise of local food movement

While beef producers who market directly to customers are seeing a surge in demand, smaller processors are overwhelmed.

As the processing sector faced severe challenges this spring, the phrase “buy local” was bandied about as the solution. But is it really that simple?

While Rachel Herbert is excited about this shift in consumer focus, she recognizes it’s not a quick or easy solution to beef shortages and processing backlogs at large packing plants.

“We have such an amazing opportunity right now to connect with people, and if you follow any social media threads or hear any of the rhetoric, there’s a lot of people saying, ‘support your local farmers,’” said Herbert, who direct markets beef with her family at their ranch, Trail’s End Beef, near Nanton, Alta.

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This, she explained, is where ranchers can show consumers the steps involved in beef production.

“Right now, if people want to genuinely support their local farmers, it’s not as easy as saying, ‘give me a side of beef tomorrow.’”

Producers scrambled this spring to book butchering dates at provincially inspected facilities for their finished cattle. Small- and medium-sized processors in Alberta are at capacity, and the abattoir that processes the Herberts’ cattle is booked for the rest of the year. Factors such as limited physical space for hanging carcasses and labour requirements mean that opening more slaughter dates is likely not possible.

“As much as it warms my heart to hear people saying, ‘just buy from your local farmer,’ in reality that’s not an immediate way for us to solve any type of potential beef shortages or food security issues because there simply is not enough processing capacity to do it,” said Herbert.

“It’s just logistically impossible to suddenly start supplying everybody who wants to support their local farmer. Even for the people that are ordering from me right now, they are going to be receiving their beef between August and October, so it’s not an immediate solution for having their freezers filled with beef.”

Moving forward, Herbert would like to see changes that allow for the establishment of more small-scale processing plants to increase capacity and meet demand in the event of a similar situation. To create this change and diversify the supply chain, she believes discussion from all stakeholders and consumers is required.

“Do we want to have a food system that is secure and truly localized, or do we want to put all of our eggs in one basket? Because as great as it is for there to be little ranches like Trail’s End Beef, we’re a microcosm,” she said.

“I might be able to feed several hundred families a year, but we need more ranches like ours who can also feed several hundred families a year. That’s a lot of people fed, but right now the industry is just completely reliant on the couple of big plants…We’re an industry (that’s) really vulnerable if we only have a few ways to move our product.”

This is the final article in a three-part series. For more see: “Direct marketing beef during a pandemic” and “Tips for marketing beef directly to customers.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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